It is not a happy time in European transport.
Airports are reporting hour-long queues for passenger check-in and screening, airlines are canceling flights, air traffic controllers are threatening to leave, railway and subway workers are also on strike.
From Brussels to Warsaw, from Amsterdam to London, there are common causes for anger and chaos – the travel industry has rebounded much faster than expected in the wake of COVID lockdowns, creating huge problems for companies that had laid off baggage handlers, ticket sellers and aircraft cabin crew, and now I can’t recruit staff any more quickly.
“The more travel returns to normal, the more passengers you have to process and clear,” said a European Commission official. “Everyone underestimated the speed of the rebound.”
Then there’s soaring inflation — caused in part by money-easing measures to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic — which is now prompting unions to demand big wage hikes.
Travelers are stressed as summer holidays approach, and politicians worry about keeping budgets in check and curbing public anger.
It quickly escalates into a blame game.
Airlines are angry as they say they filed their summer schedules at the end of March, giving airports plenty of time to staff up. Airport bosses say it takes them up to 16 weeks to get security clearances for workers, making it difficult to ramp up the workforce quickly.
“We’re coming out of a pandemic, there’s no playbook for that,” said Virginia Lee of airport lobby ACI Europe. “We were in the middle of Omicron and whoever had the idea that we should have organized a recruitment campaign in the middle of a pandemic – either you have a crystal ball or you are deeply reckless.”
Anyone considering flying should be patient.
On Monday, Brussels Airport was forced to cancel all 232 departing scheduled flights due to a strike by screening staff.
“It’s been a complicated week,” said Nathalie Pierard, spokeswoman for Brussels Airport, adding that “such actions obviously don’t work in our favour” for an industry struggling to return to the status quo after a damaging pandemic. “We are less than two weeks away from the summer holidays and therefore we have more and more passengers.”
The airport walkout was part of a general strike in Belgium that also affected parts of Brussels’ urban transport network.
Geneviève Frydman, who works in risk management for Amazon, was among many passengers stranded. She was due to fly from Prague to Brussels on Monday afternoon but was told at 11pm on Sunday that her flight was cancelled.
“My frustration was that there was no support for the passengers. It was really a ‘we can’t help you, there’s no solution how we can help you, there’s no ‘there’s no timetable we can provide you with,’ she said. ‘Not only are you stuck in another country, but you don’t get any guidance from the airline, which you did confidence to help you get home.”
The situation on the ground in Brussels, a regional hub and Belgium’s largest airport, is just a snapshot of what is happening across Europe.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has imposed a cap on the flights it will operate due to a lack of staff.
Workers at Ryanair and Brussels Airlines have announced strikes for this week, while Lufthansa already cut 1,000 flights in July due to staff shortages and bottlenecks at Frankfurt, Germany’s biggest airport.
Meanwhile, low-cost airline easyJet said it had been forced to cut thousands of flights scheduled for this summer. On Monday, Heathrow Airport asked airlines to cancel 10% of flights due to staff shortages that left passengers waiting hours to collect their luggage.
Industry bosses say a big part of the problem is that staff made redundant or laid off during the pandemic have decided not to return to an industry with minimum wages and harsh working conditions.
“The whole sector has suffered a lot,” said Pierard. “There have been layoffs, and now, little by little, we are looking for staff again because the recovery is underway.”
Added to this is a demand for more money, spurred by rising inflation.
The UK is preparing for a three-day rail strike which begins on Tuesday and will see the participation of around 40,000 workers and only a fifth of the normally scheduled services. The unions want a 7% wage increase, while the government is reluctant.
“Inflation which breaks pay rises will lead to a spiral which we want to avoid,” Treasury Minister Simon Clarke said. Told the BBC.
Some Italian transport workers walked off Friday over a pay dispute, affecting trains, buses and ferries.
In Warsaw, tensions are rising between air traffic controllers and the Polish Air Navigation Services Agency. The two sides reached a temporary agreement in April, preventing a walkout over post-COVID wages and working conditions that would have crippled air services to the country’s biggest airport. Now the unions are complaining that the agency has not kept up its end of the bargain and are threatening to resign.
As people across the continent grow increasingly frazzled and angry, union bosses are hoping passengers won’t lash out at workers.
“Aviation workers can’t take it anymore,” said Livia Spera of the European Transport Workers’ Federation. “They’ve been under significant pressure for some time now, and it’s clearly reached a boiling point.”
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